Our Responsibility Doesn't End at the Ballot Box

By Glenn Ashton · 21 Apr 2009

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Picture: mystic musing
Picture: mystic musing

When we vote in South Africa we enter the voting booth burdened by the weight of history and by our responsibility to the future. We weigh up some increasingly obscure choices and make our mark. But is this then the total sum of our democratic interaction? Are we fulfilling our social obligations by voting? Or is there more to it than this?

The world is not in particularly good shape. There is an economic hurricane building and we don't yet know how hard the winds will blow. The world population is pushing the limit of our ecological carrying capacity, with water and food supplies on the edge. People are directly and indirectly responsible for a mass extinction unique in that it is caused by living organisms, not a natural occurrence. The gap between rich and poor is not only growing, it is unprecedented. 

These issues are intimately connected. Just as the natural world is exquisitely sensitive to disruption, so too do human impacts on life on earth create massive, unpredictable and potentially catastrophic chain reactions on our support mechanisms. 

So, to return to the question, when we vote are we actually considering the full importance of what is ostensibly the most significant democratic interaction most of us have with our chosen political and governmental leadership? Are we doing enough?

The problems that assail society and the world are long in the making. The growth in the power of a banking and corporate elite has occurred within a brief historical time span yet it has had phenomenal repercussions. Besides effectively creating what amounts to a modern feudal system, it is important to reflect how the rise of corporate power has seriously impacted personal democratic freedoms. 

Democracy is theoretically driven by mortal individuals who are responsible for their actions. Corporations on the other hand are immortal and without morals, ethics or conscience; they exist simply to maximise profit. 

Corporate power has profoundly undermined democratic structures and the entire political system through purchase of favour, ingratiation to power, lobbying and powerful, single minded public relations activities. Corporations and governments each focus on short-term goals rather than long-term challenges - the next election cycle or the next quarters' balance sheet. 

The cosy relationship between corporate and political power - a corporate-political nexus – largely determines national policies. Even the early corporations of the Dutch, French and English East India Companies projected national power to maximise economic interests. The modern corporate-political nexus is rather more insidious and obscure but because of this, far more powerful.

In South Africa there is absolutely no transparency in the matter of party political funding, making it impossible to track corporate-political allegiances. This is especially problematic given that we are essentially a developing nation, as far as BEE and other developmental initiatives go. Therefore, there is no means to differentiate between donations to political entities or money that is intended to corrupt. A powerful case can be made that the reason our democratic social revolution has largely failed is because the power of capital has trumped individual rights. If the electorate is naïve enough to consider that the incoming Zuma led-government is going to change anything, besides some surface fiddling, they may be in for a rude awakening.

There are sectors of society who have perceived the rot and have become deeply cynical about the desire or ability of politicians to deliver on social promises. This is why disenfranchised groups like the Landless Peoples Movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (the shack dwellers movement), the Anti Eviction Campaign (AEC) and others have insisted they are going to withhold their votes. They clearly understand the need to organise themselves in other ways if their needs are to be met. 

Equally the expectations amongst the leftist allies of the ANC, COSATU and the SACP already appear stymied by mixed messages from their political leaders. It is logical to expect rapprochement between the ANC 'ultra-left' and broadly representative civil movements.

Even so, are the needs of the predominantly poor majority likely to be met and is the yawning gulf between the rich and poor to be narrowed? This appears unlikely. If society is to manage the sort of transformation that was envisioned post-1994 we clearly need far greater organisation in our task of engaging our political structures. This is complicated in that we need to engage on three different levels; local, provincial and national. 

Engaging with national government is possible through parliamentary select committees and through public input on bills before parliament. Provincial government remains out of touch and impossible to engage, even where their hold on power has been tenuous such as in the Western Cape. Local government is more readily accessible but remains under the sway of political patronage and party influence, as well as the constraints of national legislation. So it is clearly impossible for most individuals to engage with the remote entities that rule their lives, but there are other means for them to do so.

One way is by working through non-politically aligned broad-based social movements. Certainly they have been gutted and marginalised during the last 15 years, both through attrition, where competent people have been lured to government or private sector work, and through marginalisation by Mbeki's centralised government structures that effectively ran government, even during the Mandela years. 

While Mbeki did engage, he engaged the wrong entities. He was far keener to woo the global economic elite at places like the World Economic Forum than to engage what he maligned as 'ultra-left’ forces, including government partners like COSATU and the social movements.

This provides clues about Zuma's promises to shift the ANC and hence state policies. His interim government by remote control has been far more accessible and receptive than Mbeki's centralist cabal. Long may this continue. But pressure is already being brought to bear on Zuma, not only through the corporate political nexus but also through hidden international influence and peddling by states like China and Libya. Here, too, investment stability remains a priority, just as with the western investors that Mbeki courted.

It is clearly an opportune time for the electorate to become far more engaged through civic groups, through NGO interest groups that work on issues like wealth redistribution, housing, food security and good governance, as well as through more traditional routes such as the unions. 

If we put our individual and collective weight and energy behind seeing that our government delivers what it has promised – not just sops of meagre social grants but real job creation, not just handing out food parcels but real endeavours towards building the agrarian economy, not just building half matchbox houses but by mobilising local groups in providing houses for all – then we can say we are succeeding as a nation. Democracy comes with responsibilities that do not end at the voting booth. We cannot sit back and wait for delivery. 

Instead, we must meaningfully engage government at all levels, through peaceful and creative means of protest, especially as it professes to be rather more accepting of left wing opinions and solutions than the previous distant, reactionary leadership.

If the great social experiment that is South Africa is to succeed, we must bring in all voices, not just those who can afford to speak and to buy influence. Government must listen to, and act upon, reasoned inputs that aim to bridge the gaps that foster social diseases like crime, greed, nepotism and corruption. They must equally address the effects of corporate influence like pollution, exploitation and marginalisation. 

We are fortunate that civil society remains fairly vibrant. If the electorate realises its responsibilities do not end at the voting booth, but extend into making an effort at improving our daily lives by engaging with power, we can succeed. If we fail to do so we are bound to continue down a road of dominance by the corporate political nexus, where people are only factors of production and where our social and human rights are simply seen as impediments to profit.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Rory Short
24 Apr


Those who are interested should have a look at www.simpol.org which is a wholly democratic movement which provides the deomcratic means for ordinary citizens to take back their power which in recent years has fallen into the hands of the corporates.

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